How to take Essay Tests

by Stephen on February 13, 2013 · 0 comments

in Study Skills

Essay tests can have on them the following types of questions: short or long answers, fill in the blank, and sentence completion. Use the following suggestions to help you with essay-type tests:

  1. Make a brief survey of the entire test. Read every question and the directions. Plan to answer the least difficult questions first, saving the most difficult for last.
  2. Set a time schedule and periodically check your progress (to maintain proper speed). With six questions to answer in 60 minutes you should allow a maximum of 10 minutes per questions. If your 10 minutes passes and you have not finished the question, continue to the next one and come back to the other one later. Do not sacrifice any question for another.
  3. Read the question carefully. Underline key words: e.g., list, compare, WWII, political and social, art or music, etc. As you read, jot down the points that occur to you beside that question.
  4. Organize a brief outline of the main ideas you want to present. Place a check mark alongside each major idea and number them in order of presentation in your answer. Do not spend too much time on the outline.
  5. When you answer, always rephrase the question.Example: Explain Pavlov’s theory of conditioning. Answer: Pavlov’s theory of conditioning is based on…The remainder of the answer is devoted to support by giving dates, examples, stating relationships, causes, effects and research.
  6. Present material that reflects the grader’s personal or professional biases. Further, stick to the material covered in the reading or lecture, and answer the question within the frame of reference.
  7. If you do not understand what the instructor is looking for, write down how you interpreted the question and answer it.
  8. If time does not permit a complete answer, use an outline form.
  9. Write something for every question. When you “go blank,” start writing all the ideas you remember from your studying – one of them is bound to be close!
  10. In sentence-completion items, remember never to leave a space blank. When in doubt – GUESS. Make use of grammar to help decide the correct answer. Make the completed statement logically consistent.
  11. If you have some time remaining, read over your answer. You can frequently add other ideas which may come to mind. You can at least correct misspelled words or insert words to complete an idea.
  12. Sometimes, before you even read the questions, you might write some facts and formulas you have memorized on the back of the test.


  1. Do a memory data dump.
  2. Read all the test questions and underline the important words.
  3. As you read each question, write down key words relating to the answer that immediately comes into your mind.
  4. Develop a test progress schedule.
  5. Answer the easiest questions first.
  6. Expand the key word outline begun in Step 3.
  7. Organize the outline.
  8. Write the answer.
  9. Go to next easiest question and proceed to Step 6.
  10. Review all test questions.


COMPARE Look for similarities and differences between the things mentioned.
CONTRAST Stress the dissimilarities.
DEFINE Give a brief and accurate definition of the item.
DESCRIBE Tell the primary characteristics of a situation or retell the important elements of a story.
DISCUSS Be analytical. Give reasons, pro and con.
EVALUATE Give both the positive and negative sides of the issue or topic.
EXPLAIN Give the reasons or causes for being as it is.
ILLUSTRATE Use examples. If appropriate, draw a diagram.
JUSTIFY Give your reasons for the conclusions you have reached.
LIST Give an itemized list; number the items.
PROVE Give factual evidence, including logical or mathematical proof as appropriate.
REVIEW Give a summary and comment on important aspects of the question.
SUMMARIZE Give a summary without comment or criticism.
TRACE Describe the progress or causes of some historical happening.

By Paul D. Nolting, Ph.D., Winning at Math, 1997

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